Q&A with David Marr on Patrick White’s The Hanging Garden

Will Heyward from Readings St Kilda chats to Patrick White scholar and biographer, David Marr, about the author’s ‘lost’ novel, The Hanging Garden.

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Every day it seems that a previously unpublished work from a dead author gets discovered. The trend might have been started with Kafka, and recently there have been books by Nabokov, Foster Wallace, Bolano etc. So, is this just a case of authors being coy from beyond the grave (‘Oh – that old thing?’), or do you think that White never really expected anyone to be interested in his unpublished works?

Death isn’t the last full stop in writers’ careers. Letters, diaries, poems and novels of the dead have been published for centuries. There is no sign White was ever dissatisfied with what he’d written of The Hanging Garden or ever doubted it was interesting. He put it aside because he was old, exhausted and caught up once again writing for the theatre. And he never threw the manuscript away. Often in the past he had cannibalised abandoned projects for new novels. There was always a chance something might come of this.

David_Mar You’ve remarked before that White’s readership seems to be on the decline. Do you think that this ‘new’ novel will do anything to change that? Why should readers return to White? And why is Patrick White, referred to so often as ‘Australia’s greatest novelist’, being neglected?

The great writers of the immediate past are being neglected everywhere these days. Graham Greene sells in Britain only in the aftermath of the latest Greene film. Faulkner isn’t read widely in America. I hope the appearance of The Hanging Garden will provoke the curiosity of new readers. Meanwhile, it’s a gorgeous reward for those of us who have loved White’s writing all our lives.

How do you think The Hanging Garden compares to White’s other novels? And how does this novel fit in generally with his oeuvre? Does it have any obvious siblings in your eyes?

Children were one of White’s great subjects from the time of his earliest novels but he had never explored their inner lives as acutely as he does in The Hanging Garden. Nor had he captured Sydney so beautifully. Nor had he ventured before into the leafy and treacherous world of the city’s North Shore.

I found The Hanging Garden to be much lighter (in the best sense of the word) and warmer than, say, Voss, but was still dumbstruck by his control over the voices of his characters, in a way that I always am with White. What do you think influenced his style, in general, but also in case of The Hanging Garden?

Theatre taught White he could achieve all he wanted in prose far plainer than he used in the baroque masterpieces of his early years. He learnt that lesson for a second time when he returned to the theatre in the ‘70s. To my mind that made The Twyborn Affair one of the greatest works of any Australian writer. The prose was even more limpid in the novel he began next, The Hanging Garden.

White’s reputation is set in stone, his masterpieces recognised. Is there a temptation to see the publication of The Hanging Garden as chance to get to know a great author better, rather than a chance to read a great novel on its own merits? How important is the standard of the posthumous work?

The only point of publishing The Hanging Garden is to delight. It hasn’t been done as an act of worship. It isn’t the publication of a curiosity. We know this is unfinished and we don’t know what White might have made of it in the end. But thirty years after it was put aside this fragment sees the light of day because it is beautiful.

I got the impression reading your article for The Monthly, ‘Patrick White: The final chapter’, that you hadn’t read The Hanging Garden when you wrote your biography of White. If that’s the case, did you learn anything new about White?

I knew he had begun and abandoned a novel in 198 but I didn’t even know its name. Only when I read the almost unreadable manuscript did I discover much more was at stake here than I had imagined. White was still every bit the writer I knew him to be but frailer than I had thought and more vulnerable to the siren song of theatre. Abandoning The Hanging Garden was a little tragedy in the literary life of this country. What survives is beautiful but what was lost might have been White’s last masterpiece.

The Hanging Garden is out now in paperback ($24.95) and ebook ($16.99).

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